In 1987, a group of scholars and United Nations (UN) practitioners came together at Dartmouth College for a conference whose purpose was to create a new organization to stimulate and support research and teaching on the role of the UN system in international relations. There was a shared sense at the time that activities at the United Nations University and throughout the UN system were not benefitting from research and teaching taking place in universities and research centers. As Gene Lyons, one of ACUNS’ founders and its first Executive Director, noted in his history of the organization’s first decade, “Research on international peace and security and on social and economic development…seemed to have little impact on what was actually going on…and there appeared to be a continued decline in research on the UN itself and on the institutions of the UN system” [1]. This disconnect had been noted as early as 1970 by Stanley Hoffman [2] and in 1983 by Inis Claude [3]. To observers of international affairs, it seemed that the UN was then largely irrelevant to major issues of international security, international law, and international political economy, caught up in the north-south conflict over the proposed NIEO and related issues. In the United States (US), this decline was matched by UN-bashing in foreign policy and action by the US Congress to withhold US dues. The teaching of international organizations and international law in the US had declined and there were very few doctoral students writing dissertations about the UN system, which had implications for the future of university teaching on this subject.

Details of the story of ACUNS’ founding can be found in “Putting ACUNS Together” by Gene Lyons. The story features a number of key individuals besides Lyons himself, among them the distinguished sociologist and peace activist Elise Boulding who had served on the board of the UN University and the faculty of Dartmouth College; Benjamin Rivlin, director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; John Fobes, former Deputy Director-General of UNESCO; Oran Young, then at the Dickey Center at Dartmouth College; James P. Sewell of Brock University; the former Canadian diplomat John Holmes then on the faculty of the University of Toronto; and Victor Urquidi who had early UN experience in the secretariat of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and had been president of El Colegio de Mexico.

In many respects then, ACUNS was conceived and developed by academics who also had experience as practitioners within the UN system. The mission was not to advocate on behalf of the UN, but to encourage the study of the UN system and the teaching of international organization and international law more generally. Ultimately, the founders did not just want to create a new professional association. As Lyons wrote: “It was also to recognize that international organizations were taking on new operations and changing the structures of international relations,” raising “theoretical and policy questions about international organization that needed to be researched and analyzed” [4]. A range of issues, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; swelling numbers of displaced peoples; persistent poverty and suffering; gross violations of human rights; an increase in the number and intensity of civil conflicts; the expansion of international trade; and the growth and acceleration of international financial flows, demanded attention and analysis from scholars and practitioners alike.

It was further recognized that these issues transcended a single perspective or discipline. Encouraged by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations and other early backers of ACUNS, the organization sought to weave international law, politics, economics, and other disciplines into its work. Lawyers and scholars in international law have always been present in ACUNS with three Chairs of the Board of Directors with professional roots in international law. Thus, Lyons concluded, “the ultimate aim is to encourage a new generation of scholars, teachers, and practitioners to give new and critical attention to the role of international organizations and international law in world affairs” [5].

Several key organizational challenges faced those who founded the Council, including ensuring its financial stability; making it an international body; renewing ties with the UN; and drawing in a new generation of scholars and practitioners.

From its very first conference in 1987, ACUNS’s agenda was to facilitate research, teaching, and interaction between scholars and practitioners. A year after the founding conference, it convened the first Annual Meeting in New York at which the inaugural John W. Holmes Lecture was given—although unfortunately not by Holmes himself who was too ill to attend. Also in 1988, Donald Puchala and Roger Coate produced the “State of the United Nations” report which became the first of a series of occasional papers and reports published by ACUNS. Four years later, in 1991, the first ACUNS Workshop for junior scholars and practitioners jointly sponsored by the American Society of International Law and supported by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations was held at Dartmouth College. Subsequent workshops have regularly brought together legal staff from UN agencies as well as law scholars in the developing area of the international law of international organizations. In 1995, after the executive directorship of ACUNS had passed to Thomas Weiss and Brown University, the journal Global Governance was launched under the editorship of Craig Murphy and Roger Coate, and just two years thereafter was named “The best new journal in the United States in Business, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities” by the Association of American Publishers.

In 1995, ACUNS launched the annual Dissertation Award to recognize students of extraordinary potential who have reached the stage of writing an advanced graduate-level dissertation on a topic of direct and demonstrable relevance to the United Nations and/or the UN system. From the beginning, the Ralph Bunche Center at the City University of New York functioned as an ACUNS Liaison Office to assist scholars conducting research at the UN, and to facilitate ACUNS’s own ties to the UN system.  Subsequently, Liaison Offices have been established in several locations. ACUNS’s membership initially was largely limited to North America given the founding by Canadian, American, and Mexican scholars and practitioners. Membership is now global with members from dozens of countries. Recognizing this change, ACUNS held its first Annual Meeting in Asia in 2017, and Africa in 2019, following conferences in Latin America, Europe, and Eurasia, as well as workshops in Namibia and India.

Over the years, several specific projects and activities have enabled ACUNS to continue to pursue its objectives:

  • The Annual Meeting, a global conference that remains ACUNS’s flagship event, brings together hundreds of scholars and practitioners each June to connect and discuss new research on the UN system and international issues. The Annual Meeting also features the John Holmes Lecture, showcasing a global thought leader working in the realm of international affairs.
  • The Annual Workshop, which brings young practitioners into conversation with young academics drawn from political science, international relations, international law, international economics among other fields, with regards to key international challenges and draws some 20 participants each year, linking them together in a valuable professional and personal, shared experience.
  • The peer-reviewed journal, Global Governance, which continues its tradition of leading scholarship aimed at an audience of both scholars and practitioners.
  • The annual Dissertation Award and biannual Book Award, recognizing scholars in the field of UN studies and international affairs.
  • Other seminars, panels, and events which showcase scholars and practitioners engaged in the study or work of the UN system.
  • A new Global Governance Innovation Network, seeks to connect scholars and practitioners in flexible forums, in order to advance ideas about how to ensure effective multilateral cooperation on key global challenges of the 21st century.

The fundamental disconnect between the nature of global problems and the structures, including international law, for international problem-solving makes the UN the closest approximation that we have to a central institutional presence on the global stage. Now with members from all over the world, ACUNS remains an intellectually vibrant association of scholars and practitioners engaged in research and writing, teaching, and policy practice related to the UN system and international organizations more broadly.

Works Cited

[1] Gene M. Lyons, “Putting ACUNS Together.”  ACUNS Reports & Papers 1999, No. 2, pp. 1-2.

[2] Stanley Hoffman, “International Organization and the International System,” International Organization 24:3 (1970), p. 389.

[3] Inis L. Claude, Jr., Swords into Plowshares 4th ed. (New York:  Random House), p. vii.

[4] Gene M. Lyons, “Putting ACUNS Together.”  ACUNS Reports & Papers 1999, No. 2, pp. 18-19

[5] Ibid., p. 19.